Talk Description to Me

Episode 91 - The Underground Railroad

February 19, 2022 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 4 Episode 91
Talk Description to Me
Episode 91 - The Underground Railroad
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The Underground Railroad was a complex, clandestine network of people, secret routes, and safe houses that helped enslaved African American freedom seekers reach Northern states and Canada. This week, Christine and JJ describe some of the surviving visuals of this extraordinary network, including route maps, hideouts, and code quilts. 

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed out in description rich conversations

Christine Malec:

Today, we're going to be talking about the Underground Railroad. And we're going to give some historical context for it in case, it's something that's a bit newer for some than for others as an idea. And we'd like to set this up by pointing out that JJ and I are both really white, we are speaking from the position of someone who was, you know, who is not part of the black community. But in Canada, especially the Underground Railroad is one of those things that as Canadians we feel good about. And it's kind of one of the aspects of our history that gets celebrated, and commemorated. And so we're going to be looking at some of the visuals that we have as a country or as a continent of that experience. And when JJ and I were talking about it beforehand, JJ, you made some great points about what visuals we have and where they come from. And I think that that's a really important way to set the context.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, there are some real challenges when you're talking about the Underground Railroad, like you said, first of all, as Canadians we're, we're very proud of it, and perhaps a little too proud of it. I think sometimes our pride in, in what Canada did as part of the Underground Railroad, overshadows some of Canada's abhorrent behavior during that time. And so that needs to be acknowledged. And yeah, there's there's a real challenge with coming up with images to describing first of all, describing any historical event or period is challenging, because what we want to do on this podcast is describe primary sources, we want to describe visuals, images, photos, we don't have photos of this time period. And what we do have of the Underground Railroad tends to be from written history. And the written history of the Underground Railroad tends to be from white communities, it tends to be from white families, white diaries, white churches, not so much by the freedom seekers by enslaved people, by indigenous communities. Those are communities that have oral traditions. And without their photos, which obviously couldn't exist. We don't have diary entries from Freedom seekers, that doesn't really exist. So in describing a lot of this content, we are describing by default, the white narrative, and that just needs to be acknowledged as we move forward, I think.

Christine Malec:

And we want to set up a little bit too, about what we will and won't be discussing, because this is a difficult topic. And as you know, in Canada, we have a certain sense of it, but it's very troubling at its roots. And so, JJ, can you just give a bit of sense of what we will and won't be talking about?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. So again, the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses that ran north through the US, a network used by enslaved people and their allies to help freedom seekers escape into free states and into Canada. Obviously, this topic is intense. And there are elements of this story that are deeply profoundly troubling and upsetting. And so I think you're right, it is a good idea to let folks know what we are going to talk about and what we are not going to be covering today, we're going to give some background information. We'll be describing maps of roots of the of the Underground Railroad, we'll be describing images of safe houses and some hiding spots along the route. And then we're gonna describe some of the the code quilts and the signaling that took place along the route. But during this episode, we're not going to be describing images of enslaved people. We're not going to be describing images of their mistreatment and torture. And that's not because we feel those men and women shouldn't be recognized by history. It's not because they The acts of violence that were committed against them should be swept aside. And it's not because we feel our listeners should be shielded or denied access to those images. Honestly, we're not going to be covering those visuals because they're traumatic. And there's an awful lot of trauma going on right now. And a lot of us are just having a hard enough time getting through our days. So just from that point of view, we're going to cover some of the other visuals. And I think one thing we can do, if there are images that are related to the Underground Railroad, that you as a listener, feel are important to you, that that you would like to have described because you think they would give you a better understanding and help you work through this ugly chapter in our shared history. If you have images like that, I think, you know, reach out to to me directly. And I'll see what I can do. I think maybe that's a better way to to have those images described for those who need them described in a way that makes us all feel healthy. And well.

Christine Malec:

Now, the Underground Railroad is not a simple thing. We go it's an underground railroad. But it actually is kind of a catchphrase for an incredible infrastructure that was shifting and moving and dangerous for everyone involved. So, JJ, can you help us understand a bit about the historical context and where you got your visuals?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, so the railroad as we know, it, as its most like, as its most often talked about, was established in the early 19th century. So sometime around the 1820s. At its height, 1000 enslaved people per week, Freedom seekers, escaped using this network, very, very dangerous life and death business for all involved, because you've got a groups of people who are helping each other move across, you know, vast stretches of land that go through very dangerous territory. And in order to, to move groups of people in find safe places for them along the route, you needed to communicate and communication about the railroad was extremely difficult. So there was a coded language that was developed based on railroad terminology, this is where the the name the Underground Railroad comes from, is from the code language that was used to talk about this. So someone who was leading an enslaved person to the railroad, that that person was called an agent. From agents, they would get the promise of help, that would be a ticket guides along the route, many of whom were black, they were conductors, hiding places or safe houses, those were stations, safe house owners were station masters, and those who were escaping the freedom seekers, those were passengers, or they would even be called cargo. In terms of where we're pulling our images. A lot of the the images that are available of this time period, of course, have to be were created after so I've looked at some paintings, I've looked at some drawings, there are some photographs because of safe houses, because those houses and buildings continue to stand. And there are lots of maps that have been drawn of these routes. And so we can talk a bit about those maps as well, those are really interesting and do give some context into how people move across what stretches of land people were moving.

Christine Malec:

I'd love to start with the maps, I think that's a really interesting angle. What did you find around that?

JJ Hunt:

So there are maps that are kind of general to give you a general idea of how people moved and then there are some that are very specific, you can you can kind of zoom right into an area and see where those routes were, you know, moving from town to town, city to city. So I've got here a map from the National Geographic that features the Eastern US. So what this map shows what they call the slave states. They run from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the south to Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland. And those states are shown in a dull gray color, the territories to the west, those are in pale yellow, and what are labeled free states between the slave states and the Canadian border. They are shown in pale blue. And then on layered on top of the map are these clusters of kind of translucent arrows in red. And these clusters of arrows they look a little bit like Bear trees with fine roots that come together into a main trunk and then split into a few main branches. So for example, the biggest one, this area cluster has find roots that that start in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. And these roots all come together, and they form a thick trunk around Tennessee. And that trunk starts to move toward the northeast. And then from there, it splits into three branches. One branch goes Northwest, One branch goes north east, and a third branch, a thinner branch goes up the middle. So the Western Branch splits when it gets up into Illinois, and one limb of that branch heads into Minnesota, and the other hooks East passes over Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and ends up in Ontario. And that's where the arrow heads are. That's the direction that we're pointing. The Eastern branch goes north through Ohio, and enters Canada through Lake Erie. And then the central branch, the thinnest one goes through Indiana, and then one limb heads for Chicago and the other for Southern Ontario. So that's how these, you know, the movement of people starting from the roots, here's where they all had to come together, here's the main path that's up the trunk of this of this arrow, cluster. And then they branch off again, because once they've all come together and pass through certain parts of land, then you have to reach destinations. And that's where those big branches are. And there are several of these arrow clusters on this map. Another one goes from Georgia and the Carolinas, up the East Coast toward the northeast us and into Quebec. And then there are smaller clusters that had south. So one from Texas into Mexico, and another one from Georgia and Florida, down to the West Indies. And then there are these other maps that are tighter in focus and, and what they feature are tangles of very fine lines. And these are the ones that show specific routes that go from city to city, town to town. And like we mentioned earlier, of course, these maps were all created after the fact I haven't found any traditional maps used by Freedom seekers on their journey. There are quilts that we can talk about later. But in terms of actual maps, I haven't found anything that that looks like it would have been used along that route. That information had to be passed orally.

Christine Malec:

Let's move to talk about some of the visuals because I'm thinking when you describe the maps, I'm thinking about how big this this I don't even know took this phenomenon was and how much detail there had to be involved in it and how dangerous it was. So how can we put this into a context and bring it down to a human scale in the images that you found?

JJ Hunt:

So the National Park Service actually has a great list of safe houses on their website. These are all solid structures, cabins, and farm houses and churches, manor houses, barns and like I said you can visit some of these today. Generally speaking from the outside, safe houses that were used in the Underground Railroad, they look like any comparable home from the period right from the outside they needed to blend in they were just the same as any other house. So an example is the John Brown cabin in Kansas. The National Parks website has a small black and white archival photo that was taken some time before 1928. And this cabin in that photo. It's made with thick square logs layered with Tinker mortar. And there are very few windows on the structure. It's got a small covered front porch, and there's a wide stone chimney that suggests an open hearth inside, but really that's like many other log cabins of the era. There's the the Milton house this is a hotel in Wisconsin, and the main building of the of the Milton house is a three storey hexagonal structure. And it's got a rectangular two storey wing that said that runs alongside of the road. And then beside pardon me, behind this this main building are two small cabins. These are cabins built with uneven square logs. They have stone foundations, there's wide stone chimneys on them. It's it's an interesting building and property. But it's what's inside these buildings that makes them so remarkable. Inside the Milton house. There's a tunnel that leads underground from the main hotel building to one of the cabins behind it the narrow tunnel. There are photographs you can visit it today. It's a very narrow tunnel really not much more than shoulder width across bare stone walls. I have seen images where the stone is whitewashed, but I'm not sure if that was the case while it was being used or if that was done after the fact. And there are angled bends in the tunnel. So as you're going down this narrow, narrow tunnel that's barely wider than your shoulders. There's a sudden bend in it up ahead. And of course my first was that if you were sneaking along that underground tunnel, someone could very easily be waiting to ambush you up ahead, and you would have no idea because of that angle. And so one route for freedom seekers would have been to follow the Rock River North into Wisconsin, you could stop in relative safety at the cabin behind the Milton house and hide in the underground tunnel pass from main hotel underground to get supplies and so forth. And then when you are ready to move on, move across land to Lake Michigan, and then from the shores of Lake Michigan, you could get a boat that would take you into Canada. And so in other buildings like private houses, wouldn't necessarily be those kinds of cabins out back or cabins in the woods that you'd be looking for, you could find refuge in some safe houses inside private homes. So their safety might be found in a hidden room, perhaps in a basement with again, thick stone walls, a bare dirt floor. Or maybe the hiding spot in a house would be under a trap door in the wooden floor above or in an attic space were rough hewn rafters were overhead and perhaps someone had laid down some wooden planks and maybe a horsehair mattress that span the joists of the of the floor under foot. Those are the kind of places where people could hide in in homes. So you know, sometimes you've got cabins, sometimes you've got how the rooms high or hiding spaces in the homes of supporters. But really, again, a lot of this information we have is coming down from white families and white churches, it's quite likely that the makeshift shacks that were, you know, hiding in the woods, or even hollows that were dug, you know, holes dug in the ground, those we don't have access to images of that, right, those spots, they didn't make it onto official maps, that they're not featured in the national parks website, safe spaces on indigenous lands with indigenous communities, those were likely also very important in traveling the railroad. But we don't have access to that. I have found a handful of visuals, but they're really you know, so for example, I found a black and white photo floating around of a black man standing next to indigenous man. And this is often put out there in any article that is discussing indigenous communities and freedom seekers. But there's no context to this image. There's not even a date. It's just an image of a black man standing next to an indigenous man, so I could describe it. But I don't have any information to provide, I can't I can't even verify the date or how it connects to this. So then it's too difficult. I've got a black and white etching from 1842. This etching depicts a small collection of open top teepees and canoes on the shore of a river. And in the setting. There are some indigenous people on the land. And there are some dogs and some kids. And there are two indigenous figures speaking with a person that might be a black man holding a pistol. And the caption says that this is an an Odawa village at the Mackinac strait. And this is a strip of water linking Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. And it you know, the caption purports that this is where this is depicting a spot where freedom seekers were transferred to Ojibwa escorts for the trip to Canada. But I can't confirm any of those details. I can't honestly I'm not even sure with the dates correct. It's just, that's the kind of image that we have of the other side of the story. And so that's why in a podcast like this, it's talking about the visuals, the story has to be is dominated by the information that we have, the visuals that we have.

Christine Malec:

Gosh, I'm feeling echoes of the fear and tension just hearing about those descriptions. Um, in talking about this, I've often heard the phrase follow the North Star or follow the drinking gourd and I wonder if that's an image that gets used is that something that you've come across in any visualizations or artwork about the Underground Railroad?

JJ Hunt:

You know, the follow the North Star is is an interesting one because there is a good literal look up and follow the star and that will take you north into Canada, but the North Star is also a pattern block on quilts. And that would have been a signal along the route to let people know where they're going. So that kind of folds into quilting as signaling is quilting some signals on the Underground Railroad. Is that something that that you've heard of before?

Christine Malec:

I have! And I've also heard that it's a bit controversial as to how widespread it was or whether it was an actual phenomenon. It's not clear cut, I understand.

JJ Hunt:

No, I that's absolutely my understanding as well. I mean, the thing with the quilts is, again, it's not written down information about the quilt is not written down, because a lot of the information was, these were quilts that were often made by Freedom seekers for other freedom seekers. And I think sometimes the way quilts were used gets romanticized a little bit. And some of sometimes the, the idea of a quilt is is it's told the story is told in such a way that the quilt acts as a map that gets you from one place to another. I'm not sure that is the case that you know, that's a little bit harder to believe perhaps, I think it's likely the case that elements of quilting were used as signals along the route. I mean, think about it, you got conductors, leading passengers along the route, from station to station, really dangerous to connect with allies along the way, how do you convey messages up and down the route, right, you're traveling at night 10 to 20 miles between stations. So delivering personal private messages is near impossible. It's really difficult. It's really risky. And besides a lot of the people who are involved in the Underground Railroad, they don't have a formal education. So they're not able to read and write, you can't just send a note from place to place, you needed a different way to send and receive information. And so the idea is that symbol based messages that could be hidden in plain sight, that's what was necessary. And the women of the Underground Railroad had this perfect solution -- quilts. Quilting had been around for 1000s of years and was popular with people of limited resources, because it was a way to turn scraps of fabric into sheets. And then from there, you could make clothes, blankets, whatever you needed. And so by this point in history, quilting had evolved into taking scraps that were sewn into these uniform squares. And those squares were then sewn into the grid. And the square the patch is a really handy very methodical and really quite beautiful way of quilting. And these squares or blocks, they evolved to become replicable teachable patterns. So within each square are geometric shapes that are presented in intentional patterns. Sometimes those patterns are representational. Sometimes they're abstract, sometimes they're symbolic. And you can take scraps of fabric that are intentionally chosen colors and textures, cut them into pieces, sew them together, like puzzle pieces. That's how you create each each patch each square block. And those patterns are passed along like like recipes, or like building plans from one person to another. And because they're replicable because they have names because they're recognizable. And because they use colors that have already, you know, they have understood meanings in the culture. And because they use geometric shapes and symbols like arrows and triangles, they were perfect for displaying secret codes to people who couldn't read or write. And because quilts were commonplace, you could display messages in public places, and no one would notice they were hidden in plain sight. So you do start to see how these things could have been used, even if they weren't maps, right. Like even if you're not taking all of these squares, laying them out in a grid and saying this is a map that will get you from A to B, it's still really easy to imagine that these quilts were used in other situations. So there's a great book, hidden in plain view, a secret story of quilts in the Underground Railroad, and this book is centered around a woman named Ozella McDaniel and Ozella is a black woman from South Carolina who was passed quilt codes from enslaved ancestors through her mother, Nora Bell McDaniel. And that's how these codes would have been passed from one freedom seeker to another from mother to daughter. So an everyday bit of housecleaning of the time would be to hang your quilt outdoors to air them out. So you would hang them on a line or on a fence, you'd even you know, hang them out of an open window, totally common, would attract no attention. And it's said that if a quilt of a certain color hanging out a window, would let those on the railroad know that it was safe to approach the house. If you had a safe room if you had a spot in your house where you were hiding, Freedom seekers, that quilt of a certain color would let people know it's safe to approach the house if a quilt of a different color was hung, or even worse, if no quilt at all was hung, it's not safe to approach. Get away as quickly as possible wait for the quilt to be hung on the line or from a window and then you can return. So that's the simplest version of the quilt code. But according to women like Ozella, it was far more complicated. According to the oral history, the different pattern blocks that make up each quilt, they contained secret coded messages and by hanging quilts that had certain patterns, allies could deliver complex messages to those on the railroad.

Christine Malec:

It's such an elegant solution that you want to believe it's true, right?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah.

Christine Malec:

Can you give examples of some of the the specific quilts that you've seen?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, for sure. So the North Star, which is, you know, the one that kind of got us into this, the simplest version of the North Star block pattern is a square with two outward pointing triangles on each side. So it looks like an eight pointed star with a square at its core. In this patch, this block was said to indicate that you should look to the sky and follow the North Star to Canada. So you're getting close look to the sky and follow the North Star. That was what this was to indicate. There's a pattern called Flying Geese. And this pattern is all about triangles. Some versions have the block broken into quadrants, and there are pairs of triangles in each quadrant pointing in different directions. But for code quilts, the triangles might have all pointed in one direction, like arrow heads. And this would be a directional signal, and it would point the way to food or water or just the road ahead. And that was all dependent on the color of the triangles. If the colors are, you know, blue, perhaps that saying here's where water can be found, you know that that would be how the flying geese pattern would be used. There's a block pattern called the drunkards path. And this block has a corner to corner X across it. And that x is made with a series of convoluted set separate shapes that get all sewn together to make this kind of bumpy, wavy X shape. And this was apparently a warning indicating that hunters with hounds were in the area. So you needed to zigzag you needed to double back you need to cover your tracks and covering your tracks could be done in a number of different ways. A freedom seeker could go through water to try and cover their tracks. People even took onions with them along the path so they could rub onions on their feet. And that would hopefully throw any hounds off your scent. Then there's the Crossroads patch, these are five squares turned diagonally like diamonds, so two on top two on the bottom. And this creates an extra diamond shape in the middle. It's kind of like a very simple Argyle pattern. And this tells people that they are at a crossroads. And there are several routes to freedom. So here's a point where you have to make a decision are you heading in this direction are you heading in that direction. And then there's the bow tie. So the bow tie pattern is a block broken down into quadrants, and in each quadrant, there are four triangles, and all of their points meet in the middle. So if the top in the bottom triangles are of the same color, they look like an hourglass, and if the triangles on the sides are the same color, they look like a bow tie. And this was used if the if the bow tie was highlighted by having those colors be bright and dominant and matching. This bow tie was used to indicate that you need to travel in disguise. So change into clothes that make you look higher status. And we know that this was actually done in the 1840s Ellen Craft escaped from Georgia to Philadelphia by train, and Ellen was an enslaved woman of mixed race with a light skin tone. And she dressed as a wealthy white man traveling in the company of her enslaved valet. And that was actually her husband. So that's how some people would move through different parts of of cities. If you're going through a city and you have to be passing people perhaps this is the opportunity. This is what's required of you now is to is to wear a disguise because that's the only thing that's going to get you through this highly trafficked place.

Christine Malec:

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The Underground Railroad
Maps
Safe Houses
Code quilts